When you’re gearing up to buy a tent, there’s a lot to consider. Your needs can vary from trip to trip and season to season. It’s pretty unrealistic to think that you’re going to buy a tent for every single season.
Not even the people trying to make money off of the tents are trying to trick you into buying a tent for every season. If that’s the case, then what’s the difference between a 3-season and a 4-season tent? Can you get by with just one? Do you need both? We’re here to demystify the seasonal tent world so you don’t have to!
3 Season vs 4 Season Tents – Overview
Here are the top 4 picks.
Season ratings on tents are more of a shorthand than an actual promise of performance unlike temperature ratings on sleeping bags. Season ratings are more like a broad description of how robust the tent could be considered. In fact, there are more season ratings than there are seasons.
Let’s run down the ratings briefly so we know what we’re even looking at when we talk about 3-season and 4-season tents.
- 1-2 seasons: These are the lightest-duty tents. They’re made for use in fair weather more than anything else. They don’t hold up well in the rain and they’re so exposed that any dip in temperature is going to be difficult for them to shelter you against.
- 3-seasons: This is probably what pops into your head when you think of a tent. These tents are made for use between mid-spring to mid-fall. They’re light enough to comfortably carry pretty much everywhere and versatile enough to handle sunshine and moderate rain.
- 4-seasons: 4-season tents are tents that can be comfortably inhabited pretty much any time of the year. Because winter is on the table, they have to gear a lot of their design and overall functionality towards the colder months, so 4-season tents tend to be a lot shorter and more well-insulated than 3-season tents.
- 5-seasons: A 5-season tent is what we call an extreme weather tent. These tents are meant to make it to the top of difficult and frigid mountains. You’re probably never going to need a 5-season tent, but they’re out there if you ever decide to test your resolve.
3 Season Tents
3-season tents are the most ubiquitous sort of tent, which ironically makes them the most difficult to define. 3-season tents, more than anything, are characterized by their versatility and their wide range of variety. The thing you can depend on most, though, is the ability to adjust the fine details of your 3-season to tune it perfectly to the weather of your trip at the moment.
They almost always come with a rainfly that will allow you to protect yourself from the rain, because most 3-season tents will prioritize an open-air roof constructed with lots of mesh. If you don’t think you’re going to be camping in freezing temperatures or out in the desert during the daytime, then you’re going to want a 3-season tent.
There’s one for nearly every set of needs. You can rely on a 3-season tent if you’re looking for something to get you up to your campsite without fuss and through the night in a comfortable fashion.
Shining Examples of 3-Season Tents
The Forceatt 3-Person Tent is one of the most standard 3-season tents you can imagine. It’s a spacious tent both horizontally and vertically. It’s made to house up to 3 adults comfortably. The tent itself is made from lightweight and breathable material so you can bring it in your backpack without weighing yourself down too much.
You can see from the mesh top half of the tent that it’s meant to give you a sense of open air and connection to nature. The mesh also acts as a cooling mechanism, allowing you to keep your airflow high in the summertime when you’ll need it most.
It comes with a generous rain shield as well. This totally encompasses the tent when it’s not quite as warm outside as you would like it to be, and it creates a small area in front of the entryway of your tent for you to store your gear should you have been trapped in the rain.
The Coleman Sundome Tent is another simple 3-season tent. It’s the kind of tent that we think of when we think of an easy tent to handle. The design is inviting and uncomplicated, but it comes with enough bells and whistles to keep it from being inconvenienced by a little summer shower.
The tent is made from polyester taffeta. That’s an intricately woven polyester that’s soft enough to remain comfortable yet sturdy enough to withstand the elements for years. The rainfly is a bit more sturdy, being constructed from 75-denier polyester.
The rainfly, unsurprisingly resists water for a long time, leaving you warm and dry inside of the tent while blocking the wind and water from your sanctuary. The body of the tent is also as weatherproof as a 3-season tent can be. The corners are welded shut so you won’t have to worry about any stray leaks, the seams are sealed tight, and even the zippers work in concert with the tent to keep the internal area of the tent dry.
You’re probably not going to be taking this tent out when the weather is poor. This tent shines when the sun is out. The mesh ceiling gives you a wide-angle view of the sky above you. Starlit nights and cloud dotted days can be truly appreciated with the open-air philosophy this tent brings to the campsite. The windows on the sides of this tent are also spacious and allow the sun to bless your tent with its comforting rays.
There are also some small quality of life features that set this tent apart. It knows that it’s a tent for more casual campers, so if you’re at a campsite with electricity, but you don’t want to leave your tent doors open to access it, they’ve got you covered.
The E-port on this tent is cleverly hidden to keep it from becoming a point of failure during inclement weather while remaining an easy port of entry for extension cords. It’s a tent that keeps you connected to the world around you both natural and digital.
4 Season Tents
These tents are the kind of tent you’d bring along on a mountaineering trip or if you’re trying to test your mettle in a harsher winter climate. These tents don’t initially seem too different from 3-season tents, but there are some key differences.
4-season tents are much more heavy-duty. These tents have to be ready to withstand temperatures that make their material more brittle, they have to block out zealous gales and snow melting underneath your body once you’ve set yourself up.
All of this means that the overall design of a 4-season tent has to diverge from 3-season tents in a lot of crucial ways. The most obvious change is the height and overall profile of a 4-season tent. Winter months and higher elevations tend to have winds that are much more aggressive than the balmy summer months at sea level.
This lower profile gives 4-season tents the ability to hunker down when the wind kicks up. The last thing you want is to have to wake up in the middle of the night and re-stake your tent after the winds start howling and the air around you has turned into icy daggers of natural punishment.
The focus on warmth and protection from the elements also means that a 4-season tent has to act more like a windbreaker than a cardigan. The mesh openings that you’re likely used to in your 3-season tents are usually eliminated entirely or replaced with polyurethane windows.
You’ll still be getting sunlight and a view of the world around you, but they’re almost always behind a flap you’re meant to seal or much smaller than the skylights and hinged flaps that 3-season tents opt for.
4-Seasons For You
You can see all of this reflected in the REVALCAMP Two-Person Tent. This two-person tent is a simple example of the 4-season design philosophy. It’s a tent that’s designed to give you the right amount of comfort without sacrificing the elements that make a 4-season tent the perfect option for bundling up when the world goes cold.
It’s incredibly versatile, you can set the tent up with any combination of the tent and rainfly. This allows you to select your level of comfort to match the conditions of your trip, allowing it to truly embody the 4-season designation it’s been given.
At the same time, it’s been designed to thrive in the winter months. The tent also comes outfitted with a small vestibule. This is a covered area outside of the tent itself for storage of your wet equipment like boots that have been trudging through snow, or umbrellas that have battled off the wind and rain.
Vestibules like this are a godsend when it comes to the winter months, you want to keep yourself as dry as possible to preserve your body heat when the air is trying to steal your warmth. You can see the low-profile design at work when you look at its relatively short and sloped shape.
This is all in service of keeping the tent grounded when the wind whips up. The tent itself is generally cloistered from the outside world. It’s all flaps from every angle. If you want a window to the world you have to make the effort to open up the flap covering a comparatively small amount of mesh.
Another solution that some 4-seasons will opt for is creating a larger outer shell that your tents can fit inside of. This creates a two-pronged approach to mitigating the weather. Something like the Happybuy Ice Fishing Shelter solves the winter problem with this approach.
It’s a large shelter that you can heat and protect from the wind and snow while you’re fishing and milling about during the daytime, and when it’s time to bed down for the night, you can set up a much smaller tent for sleeping. If you invest in something like this then you’re going to be able to vastly extend the functionality of a 3-season tent and give yourself the best of both worlds.
Of course, this is a much more involved winter solution. You’ll be bringing along and setting up two separate tents and you’ll need to develop a setup that you’re most comfortable with, which takes a lot of trial and error if you don’t have the teacher or experience.
Is There Really A Difference?
It’s tempting to say that you should just grab a 4-season tent and bring it along on every single one of your camping trips. The beauty of a 4-season tent is its ability to work in some capacity in every season, right? It’s a matter of practicality, really.
If you’re never going to put yourself in a situation where you’re going to need the additional insulation of a 4-season tent, then there’s really no reason to put yourself through the headache of carrying the additional parts. A 4-season tent has to work in conditions that are much harsher than a 3-season tent, so everything from the material the tent itself is constructed from to the size and weight of the tent poles is going to be that much bulkier.
4-season tents naturally demand more space and weight than 3-season tents. This alone should be reason enough to discourage you from just picking up a 4-season if you really don’t need one for your regular camping excursions.
If you’re not totally equipped for a winter camping trip with things like a 4-season sleeping bag, coats and boots for navigating the winter world, and the expertise for setting yourself up in a winter tent effectively, then owning a 4-season tent is just a siren’s call to danger.
Most people are going to do just fine with a 3-season tent for this reason. The layperson is going to get through all of their camping trips without incident with a shelter from the rain, some sturdy stakes, and a dependable weather forecast.
If you’re not a hardcore survivalist that’s looking to challenge themselves in unique and difficult camping scenarios, then there isn’t much reason for you to invest in a 4-season tent.
The Benefits of a 3-Season Tent
3-season tents are also just a much better option for folks that are trying to get an authentic and satisfying opportunity to reconnect with nature. 3-season tents are going to have much more mesh and open space built into their designs. These tents with their skylights and breezy designs are meant to give you as much contact with the world outside of your tent as possible.
For these reasons, 3-season tents are also a lot more spacious than 4-season tents. It’s hard to trade off space and freedom granted by a 3-season tent for the low profile and insulation of a 4-season tent if you don’t really need it.
If you’re a stargazer or you’re the type of person that’s constantly searching for the unique brand of fresh rejuvenating air that a well-maintained campground is swaddled in, then you’re going to have a much more enjoyable time in your 3-season tent.
3-seasons are great for keeping your feet in the grass and your head in the clouds when you’re set up in a beautiful camping spot. 3-seasons are lighter and all-around more practical for most people, and when you get to the heart of it, that’s what the heart of camping is.
You’re testing your logistical thinking and reconnecting with nature. A natural part of that is going to be realizing when you’re overpreparing to the point of hindrance and fighting that instinct before it ruins your camping trip.
Which One is For Me?
The beauty of 3-season and 4-season tents is that once you’ve found the one for you, then you’re pretty much set until you take a camping trip outside of your comfort zone. Depending on where in the world you tend to do your camping, a certain type of tent may fit better into your life.
Generally, 3-season tents are going to be fine all year if you’re not camping too far north. The winters in the Southern United States and areas near the temperate zone of the world can be braved with a 3-season tent. As long as you’re smart about the equipment you bring along and you layer up properly, you’ll be just fine.
Folks that absolutely need a 4-season tent are people that are regularly seeing snow during their winter camping trips, the additional layers of protection from the elements are going to be the difference between freezing your butt off and creating a private bubble of comfort and survival in the woods.
Bonus tip: If you’re going to take on winter camping, this double-tent method is a simple way to increase your comfort even on the coldest nights!